“I was at the library’s annual book sale and this guy was hoarding all the books I wanted to buy,” a young deckhand who worked on a Key West schooner told me last month when I was visiting the area. “He had all the marine books and books about diesel engine repair, he told me he just bought an old tugboat and was going to get it going. I guess the books are on the bottom now.”

The book buyer had purchased the 1943 tug Tilly for $8,000 through Craigslist, presumably from the documented owner of the vessel. The 81' tug had sunk in Key West in late February. The buyer, Stephen Freer, a 66 year old who has been described as a homeless person, a dreamer and an idiot, had an idea to move the Tilly, which was in rough shape and needed to be moved, to Cuba and operate it as a “maritime cooperative.” But first he needed a slip for it. So he rented one at Stock Island Marina Village on nearby Stock Island for a month. The Tilly was towed in and marina management soon began eviction proceedings. Ultimately, they created a crude wooden engine mount and slapped an outboard on it and towed the Tilly out. This was Freer’s first time underway on any sort of vessel. You can see him on this maiden voyage adrift in a video from Key West The Newspaper (The Blue Paper).

He abandoned ship and the Tilly sank a few days later a half mile from the Main Ship Channel. Now the salvage price tag is estimated at $300,000 and clearly, Freer won’t be able to pay the bill.

The sad end to an able tug from New York Harbor speaks to a larger issue that confronts many waterfront communities. It’s the kind of thing that happens when real estate values begin to rise like they have on Stock Island, which at one time was the commercial maritime harbor in Key West. As mixed-use developments begin to spring up, languishing vessels like the Tilly become eyesores and need to be disposed of. The sinking tactic is a costly one for the taxpayers and selling it on Craigslist to an unqualified buyer is unethical.

I would like to see someone track down the last documented owner of the tug and ask him a few questions. Or how about the guys from the marina that rigged up that sham of a propulsion system to legally cut it loose with its hapless captain aboard? There is plenty of blame to go around in this sad story.

Meanwhile, Freer told the Miami Herald, “I am ready to give up on this evil empire and go down to Cuba where they appreciate old machinery.” Maybe he has stashed the library books on shore for his next project?

A collection of stories from guest authors.